GEORGIA TANN: A STORY OF STOLEN BABIES

By Lois Cooper

The story of Georgia Tann is one of intrigue, fascination, horror, disbelief and many more words of description.  It is a story of a very influential woman who was born and raised in Hickory, Mississippi.  She achieved a position of outstanding prominence.  She was very wealthy and fraternized with the elite.  Her life was one of fraternizing with the elite.  Eleanor Roosevelt sought her counsel regarding child welfare.  Pearl Buck asked her to collaborate on a book about adoption.  She received a personal invitation to President Truman's Inauguration.  She traveled in politically elite circles.  And, while doing all of this, she visited with her mother often in Hickory.  The beautiful Tann home, which is the second oldest home in Hickory, is located near Highway 503.  There are residents in the home today and the home still has visions of grandeur. 

Georgia Tann is buried in the Hickory Cemetery along with her parents, George Clark Tann and Beulah Yates Tann, and her brother, Rob Roy Tann.  It is a very nice Tann burial plot.  Standing over Georgia's grave in the Hickory Cemetery, the average person would never know the controversy she stirred up during her lifetime.  She had one of the largest black markets for children ever seen in the United States.  From 1924 to 1950, Georgia Tann stole, or otherwise separated, more than 5,000 children from their families.

Louise Bailey and I have long been interested in the Georgia Tann story and, in 2009, conducted extensive research on her activities  using both primary and secondary sources as well as many interviews.  A major source of information came from the book The Baby Thief  by Barbara Raymond.  The television movie, "Stolen Babies," was released in 1993 with Mary Tyler Moore portraying Georgia Tann.  Articles on Tann's life also have been published in Good Housekeeping magazine.  The Meridian Star did an article on Georgia Tann on March 25, 1993.  Georgia Tann also gained national media attention on television series such as "Unsolved Mysteries" and “Probe."

We do not  know much about Georgia's young years in Hickory.  Georgia's father was the most influential person in her life.  Her feelings toward him were a mix of love and hate, or wanting to prove herself to him and to defy him.  Georgia's parents were Judge George Clark Tann and Beulah Yates Tann.  George Clark Tann's grandfather had served under William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe and his father was a Confederate war hero.  George himself was the most educated man in Newton County and Judge of the Mississippi Second Chancery District Court.  While George was respected, he was not well liked for he was arrogant, argumentative, and domineering.  Georgia had a brother, Rob Roy Tann, who was three years older.  While serving in World War I, he suffered what was then called shell shock and for the rest of his life suffered from tremors.  He died of tuberculosis at age 46.

Georgia Tann with Lucy

Above: Georgia Tann, with the help of a barber,
grooms Lucy, a ward, for adoption.

Georgia majored in music and, after graduating in 1913 from Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia, she taught school briefly in Columbus, Mississippi.  However, she lacked the patience for teaching and may well have considered it an old-fashioned profession.

Georgia was also familiar with social work, at that time in its infancy, having long practiced a form of it herself.  Charity work was a refuge during her adolescence, perhaps providing an excuse for her absence from local parties and dances.  While other girls primped for the parties, she put on starched, long-sleeved blouses and skirts that swept the floor and visited the local poor.

 By 1920, exploiting the lack of regulations on adoption and her father's position as a judge, Tann began placing children she had kidnapped from poor women.  Georgia began working for Kate McWillie Powers Receiving Home for Children in Jackson which was affiliated with the Mississippi Children's Home Society.  Georgia was run out of Mississippi for her "child-placing" methods and went to Texas.  Georgia then moved to Memphis, TN.  She  became Executive Director of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children's Home Society.

Barbara Raymond said in her book, The Baby Thief, "Scores of children in the custody of Tann's Tennessee Children's Home Society died, making Memphis' infant mortality rate the highest in the country.  Yet Tann was publicly lauded for her work.  She also amassed a personal fortune selling children to the wealthy (including actors June Allyson, Dick Powell, and Joan Crawford).  Virtually no robbed parents got their children back."

Georgia Tann Memphis Home

Above: Memphis Home of Georgia Tann

There seemed to be no end to the pain that Georgia caused.  While building her black market business, she had invented modern American adoption.  To cover her kidnapping crimes, she falsified adoptees birth certificates, issued false certificates, and portrayed their adoptive parents as their birth parents.

In 1950, the Tennessee Governor finally acknowledged Georgia's crimes.  The adoptive parents could not bring themselves to investigate whether their children had been stolen for fear of having to return them.

Georgia had many accomplices:  Politicians, legislators, judges, attorneys, doctors, nurses, and social workers who scouted child victims.  She operated for 26 years.  It was not until she was three days from death with cancer that a Tennessee official told of her crimes.

If the story of Georgia Tann teaches us anything, it is the importance of ridding adoption of lies and secrets.  Thankfully, much as been done since Georgia's death to help parents find children through well respected adoption agencies.

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